Getting In The Way Of A Good Democracy Story
By Elise PotakaSeptember 25, 2012
Just as regime change and shiny new democracy brings openness to Myanmar, it also lifts the lid on simmering religious and ethnic conflicts. Will Aung San Suu Kyi continue to speak out for human rights if upholding them threatens her power base?
Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine State, is a patch of vibrant green, edged by the rough, tepid waters of the Bay of Bengal. Wooden-shack villages back onto rice paddies, and the small, leafy downtown area stitches together hole-in-the-wall shops, teahouses and restaurants.
But there's a tension in the air, as heavy as the monsoonal rain clouds overhead. This is a small town and it's hard for the slow-moving tuk-tuks, moto riders and cyclists to avoid the soggy, blackened patches of land that used to be bustling villages – until rioting mobs burned them down.
"That was a mosque," local journalist Po Thiha, tells me, pointing to a lone arc of concrete that sits amid scorched stumps of coconut palms, broken glass and remnants of the objects that once framed people's lives. We're standing on a piece of land the size of several football fields. This was previously part of San Pya quarter, where Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya had lived side by side.
Myanmar sectarian unrest leaves deep scars
We drive to a village nearby, where 1,700 Rohingya from San Pya are now sheltering. It's a dusty collection of raised huts, now crowded with people of all ages. "We had no problem with the Buddhists before," Nawseema Har Tu Fa tells me as a crowd gathers close to listen in. "We lived together, we used to speak, we went to the market every day together," she says. Now, a line of police separates this community from its former neighbours.
Like the other scorched patches of land, San Pya quarter was destroyed when conflict broke out between the Rakhine and Rohingya in early June. It was sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in May, allegedly by three Muslim men, and the retaliation killings of 10 Muslims that followed.
Violence then spread across the northern part of Rakhine State. Footage and photos show men and women clutching metal poles and knives, whole villages ablaze, and armed police forming a line between the two angry communities. There are images of beaten and bloodied bodies, some blackened by the fires, others swollen by the rains. Then, there's footage of burials and of frightened villagers huddling together inside shelters.
The official number of dead is 78, but the figure hasn't been updated since late June and aid groups say it's a gross underestimate.
This week, as leading democracy figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, tours the United States, she's been faced with questions about the conflict. But rather than addressing what many believe to be underlying religious and ethnic tensions in her country, Suu Kyi has focused only on the need to improve rule of law. "From the very beginning the basic norms of rule of law were not observed, the whole thing escalated and became worse and worse," she said in a speech in Washington D.C., after an introduction by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
Further, Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has made no unified statement on the situation, instead allowing its leaders and members to publicly express their own, often anti-Rohingya, sentiments.
This has frustrated many in the international community. Some worry that the Lady, as she's commonly referred to, is sacrificing her usually unwavering position on the protection of human rights in order to ensure allegiance from her mostly Buddhist domestic political base in the lead-up to the 2015 election.
According to official figures, Islam is practiced by four per cent of Myanmar's population, while 89 percent are Buddhist. Muslims have lived in the country for centuries – some, like those who call themselves 'Rohingya', arrived from India and what is now Bangladesh, but there are also non-Rohingya Muslims who migrated from regions like Persia and China. Rakhine State has the largest number of Muslims, and most of them identify as Rohingya.
Over the years, tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities have resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence. But the current situation is more than just a new wave in an undercurrent of religious intolerance. It highlights a system based on deep-rooted prejudice that, for nearly 30 years, has denied Rohingya Muslims a place to call home. And it's only when you visit Myanmar that you come to understand how sensitive and divisive this issue is.
I arrive in Sittwe as the conflict enters its third month. While bigger towns like Sittwe, and Maungdaw to the north are quiet now, the calm enforced by patrols of police and soldiers, there are still skirmishes in smaller villages. Some areas have become ghost towns, abandoned when people fled. In one part of Narzi quarter – the largest Muslim area in Sittwe – shops and houses are still standing. But the muddy lanes are almost empty of life, and neglect is already visible in the sagging jumbles of wood that were once shop stalls and rain shelters. As clouds brew overhead, Po Thiha shows me to a monastery that houses a pagoda missing chunks of concrete and figures of Buddha with their heads lopped off.
"We are all waiting for a plan from the government," police Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Aung, head of the 6th Combat Police Battalion, tells me as we sip tea heavy with condensed milk on my first morning in town. Myo Min Aung's battalion, deployed here from Yangon after local police were accused of participating in violence, now patrol the land separating Rakhine and Rohingya settlements. This morning, he's dressed in a crisp grey uniform, and carries a bag full of communication devices that every so often bark into life.
He tells me that there are around 70,000 people displaced in the Sittwe area alone, 50,000 Rohingyas and 20,000 Rakhines. He confirms that, while the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing some food aid, it's not enough. He says he wants to go home to Yangon, but he must wait for orders from above.
It's a tea session that I never thought I'd be having. Until now, Sittwe has been off limits to foreign media. In particular, the camps housing displaced Rohingya have been forbidden to outsiders, even to INGO (International Non-Government Organisations) workers. Now, as I sit at the table with the man who's responsible for maintaining order, I wonder if this is in any way reflective of Myanmar's transition. Myo Min Aung is 34 years old, apparently the youngest person to hold the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in Myanmar, and not afraid to speak openly to a foreign journalist. What's more, over the next few days he gives me access to not only Rakhine shelters, but also Rohingya camps.
Speaking with those made homeless by the conflict, it's immediately clear that acts of violence have been committed on both sides. "People were burning down my village, so that's why I fled my home in just the clothes I'm wearing," a Rakhine fisherwoman, Saw Saw, tells me at the Su Taung Pyae monastery, a set of buildings in the leafy downtown area where she has been living for two months.
"The people were very afraid, so that's why they came out to the camp. Now, the government is instructing people to go out to the refugee camps," says Soe Myint, the manager of a Rohingya camp that is housing over 1,400 people on the town's fringes.
In a report that draws from 57 interviews with Rakhine and Rohingya, Human Rights Watch has accused the government of doing little to stop the unrest. People I speak with in the shelters agree that security was lacking. "In Narzi, there were police and army present during the conflict, but only a few," says Rezu Mar Bibi, a displaced Rohingya.
More unsettling are the allegations that local security forces opened fire on Rohingyas, looted properties and conducted mass arrests of Muslim men and boys.
It's difficult to conclusively verify these claims, but I hear numerous stories of people missing, or separated from, family members. "I haven't seen my son, but I heard he was shot in the chest by the police. I don't know if he is dead or alive," an older Rohingya woman tells me. The movement of people — particularly Rohingyas in camps on the outskirts of town — is restricted, making it hard for them to conduct their own search for missing loved ones.
It's equally hard to confirm whether or not Rohingyas are being forcibly removed to camps, as some overseas activists believe. But it's not impossible to see where this concern comes from. Online forums and Facebook pages have been full of inflammatory comments referring to Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and, even worse, as terrorists. Anti-Rohingya blogs have claimed that the Muslim group is fully to blame for the violence. In Yangon, Myanmar's most populous and largest city, protestors took to the streets declaring that this was "not a religious conflict" as reported by the foreign press, this was a matter of national security and upholding the law. "Rohingya is [sic] not Myanmar ethnicity," read one banner.
It's something that you learn quickly after arriving in Myanmar - that the word "Rohingya" is not even part of the accepted Burmese lexicon. Here, Rohingyas are referred to as "Bengalis" or "guests", terminology that underpins their lack of status under the country's 1982 Citizenship Law passed by former dictator, Ne Win. The Rohingya were not included as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and their only way to obtain citizenship is to prove conclusively that their ancestors settled in Myanmar before 1823, which marks the beginning of British occupation of what is now Rakhine State.
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This has effectively denied citizenship to the majority of Rohingya, a situation that has, according to the UNHCR, left them "trapped not only in a protracted refugee situation, but also in a protracted situation of statelessness." The UN has said that this decision has also resulted in the Rohingya enduring "forced labour, extortion, restriction on freedom of movement, the absence of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations and land confiscation."
Many Burmese believe that Rohingya are illegal arrivals who only recently entered from Bangladesh, and any conversation about history ends in a tangle of sources and claims. While some historians say the Rohingya arrived in Myanmar centuries ago, others claim the term was only coined in the 1950s by "Bengali settlers" who came here after the 1823 British occupation.
The reformist government under President Thein Sein is doing little to change the status quo. In the aftermath of the initial violence, the President called for Rohingyas to be "settled in refugee camps managed by UNHCR", and even flagged the option of other countries taking them in.
It's a stance that's apparently at odds with the government's recent efforts to end ethnic conflicts in other parts of the country. For decades, a small number of minority ethnic groups, including the Karen, the Kachin and the Shan, have been demanding autonomy from the Burman-dominated administration.
The President this year said that, "in implementing political and economic reforms, easing of ethnic conflicts needs to be considered." A number of tentative cease-fire deals have already been reached with armed rebels, and there's hope that peace in these areas will bring greater economic opportunity.
But it's difficult to even compare the situation of these ethnic groups with that of the Rohingya, a group of people that is unarmed and who aren't even recognised as Burmese nationals.
When I first arrived in Myanmar, I met with Myo Win, the head of an interfaith education centre in Yangon, who has been campaigning to have the citizenship law changed. "We have just submitted a paper to the parliament… the law is discriminatory and not relevant with international human rights," he said.
Myo Win, who is Muslim but not Rohingya, spoke to me in his office where he sits beneath a picture of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has made only vague, guarded comments about the issue of citizenship. Asked in June whether she believed the country's 800,000 or so Rohingyas should be regarded as citizens, she replied, "I don't know." She went on to say that it was a matter of clarifying the law: "We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them."
Others of the so-called 88 Generation – activists who were involved in the 1988 pro-democracy protests against the military rule of Ne Win – have even publicly spoken out against the Muslim group. "The Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group. The root cause of the violence… comes from across the border," former student leader, Ko Ko Gyi, said, tapping into fears that Muslims from Bangladesh are entering Myanmar and bringing with them all manner of trouble.
The refusal of well-respected activists to call for a review of the citizenship law confuses Myo Win. "Why did they fight against Ne Win's regime, if they agree with his idea?"
But perhaps more disturbing are reports that Buddhist monks, revered across the country and respected for their role in the pro-democracy movement, are now encouraging the exclusion of the Rohingya.
At the Gade Chay Monastery in central Sittwe, Master Oo Ku Maar Ka is providing shelter and food for 233 displaced Rakhine. He ensures that the WFP rations are supplemented with other donations. He has little tolerance for his Muslim compatriots.
"They are very cruel, very scary, they have a bad character like a devil. These devils come from another country, Bangladesh," he says, as families sit in groups around him. He uses the perjorative "kalar" when he refers to the Rohingya, and blames the authorities for allowing illegal immigration.
Already existing prejudices have only been heightened by the violence. Saw Saw, the fisherwoman sheltering in the Su Taung Pyae monastery, is adamant that the Rakhine and Rohingya cannot live together in the future. "It's not possible because these people are very cruel," she tells me. "We knew the ones who burned down our houses, but if Rohingya from outside come in then it will be even worse."
In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis deepens. Many of the Rakhines are housed in monasteries in the downtown area. While they have access to the town's central market, they have no income with which to buy food and are reliant on donations. Some tell me they've been promised new homes, but in the meantime they will stay in temporary facilities that are being built in town.
There's less certainty on the outskirts of Sittwe where six shelters house displaced Rohingya, and already existing villages are also taking in those who've been left homeless. The Kaung Dokar "Refugee" Camp is a sprawling grid of white tents pegged into a muddy, open field.
Days here are book-ended by a 6pm to 6am curfew. Rainstorms provide relief from the heat, but bring other challenges. "I want to go home because when it rains here in the camp, the water rises up," says Rezu Mar Bibi, a young woman from Narzi quarter. "If I can't go back home, I want to go to another country."
The people here tell me they are not allowed to go back into the downtown area – ostensibly for their own safety. Unable to work, they also must rely on supplies from aid groups. But, "Who can give us food forever?" Rezu Mar Bibi asks.
I ask them about the issue of citizenship. "We're born in Myanmar, so we must be Myanmar citizens," says 33-year-old Abu Shukur, after telling me he's worried his community will eventually be pushed out to another country.
Another man who doesn't wish to be named tells me, "In our area we are all Rohingya. But our President says we are just Muslim. So what can we do?"
On my last night in Sittwe, I'm invited for a meal with police Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Aung. We're joined by a young man who I'm told works closely with the Chief Minister for Rakhine State. He wears a starched white shirt and longyi, and has betel nut-stained teeth.
As a storm lashes the adjacent shores of the Bay of Bengal, the conversation turns to the crisis, and I'm asked what I think is its root cause. I talk in vague terms about the citizenship issue, and the need for tolerance.
I'm then asked whether my thoughts on Myanmar have been altered by the fact that I've been allowed access to this area, and to people on both sides of the conflict. I admit that I'm surprised by the access I've been given, but silently I wonder how the Lieutenant Colonel and government worker will respond to an article that paints a bleak picture of ethnic relations in their country.
Even though Myo Min Aung is an ethnic Burman, not a Rakhine, he is still adamant that giving Rohingya citizenship is out of the question. Yet he calls himself a "humanist", and says he wants to see an end to the fighting and a solution to the camps. The government worker, who says he also worked under the old regime, is keen to tell me that Myanmar is changing, that talk of openness and transparency is actually being followed up by action.
There are rumours that the conflict is being supported by some of the old generals, keen to shore up the power of the army and make life difficult for the architects of reform. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it's clear that the fresh smell of Myanmar's new beginning has been soured by this conflict.
Something that I hear repeated by Myo Min Aung during my stay in Sittwe is that Burmese have a spirit that is "hungry" for change, and that to this end, "we are trying". The massive changes that have taken place in the past 18 months – the release of hundreds of political prisoners, greater press freedom and moves towards an investment law – give some credence to this assertion. Since I left Myanmar, the government has suggested that it is open to looking at solutions to the situation in Rakhine State beyond simply exiling the Rohingya.
On August 17, President Thein Sein announced the establishment of a 27-member commission to investigate the crisis, a move that was welcomed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It's a multi-stakeholder taskforce with representatives from different political parties and religious organisations, as well as civil society. In coming months, they will report back to the President with an evaluation of the causes for the conflict and suggestions for ways to end it. But already there are reasons for concern. There are no Rohingyas on the commission, and indeed, it includes several people who have previously expressed strong anti-Rohingya sentiments, like former student leader Ko Ko Gyi.
This is a critical time for Myanmar on the world stage – Thein Sein is preparing to make his debut at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, and Aung San Suu Kyi is also making her return to the international political circuit, receiving accolades for her usually vocal position on the protection of human rights. Both want to convince the world that Myanmar is changing, and to rebuild international ties. But on the matter of the Rohingya, how can they appease the global community without angering their domestic supporters?
It's also worth asking how hard the international community will push for a solution to the situation as the potential of Myanmar's economic opening – and its market of 50 million new customers – becomes fully appreciated.
Back in Sittwe, maroon-robed monks with bare feet still make their rounds clutching collection bowls, and the market is now busy and bright with fresh greens and fish hauled in from the bay. But the town is also disturbingly homogenous – there are no Muslims in sight.
And while the monsoonal rains help douse the flames of new sectarian flare-ups, it's clear a longer-term solution that addresses deep-rooted prejudice is much needed.
Read more coverage of Myanmar from our Asia Correspondent, Aubrey Belford, including the hidden ethnic war in the country’s north; the Western corporations circling one of the world’s last undeveloped markets; and why the election of Aung San Suu Kyi was only ever the beginning of a transformation, not the end.